Clashes between Kurdish forces and Arab tribes in Syria

Clashes between Kurdish forces and Arab tribes in Syria

Violent fighting between Kurdish forces backed by the United States and local Arab fighters has gripped the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor since August 27. A total of 71 people died in just one week of the fighting, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on September 4. Our Observer says that these clashes are the result of brewing frustration among the majority Arab population about the violence carried out by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

Issued on:

3 min

Back in 2015, a number of ethnic militias and rebel groups in Syria joined forces to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, calling their new coalition the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and receiving backing from the United States and its allies. The members of the SDF were also united in their opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Later, Arab Sunni fighters, recruited from Bedouin tribes, also joined the group.

On August 27, the SDF arrested Ahmad al-Khabil (nicknamed Abu Khawlah), the head of the Deir Ezzor Military Council, an armed Syrian group that, up until very recently, actually had been linked to the SDF.

The SDF accuses Al-Khabil – who is from one of the most influential tribes in the area, the Al-Uqaidat – of corruption and drug trafficking. After his arrest, his followers launched attacks on the SDF, hoping to drive them out of Deir Ezzor.

Zain al-Abidin lives in Deir Ezzor and often tweets analysis about the situation there.

At first, the population didn’t have a problem with Al-Khabil’s arrest because, locally, he is feared and hated.

But the situation changed rapidly after a member of Al-Khabil’s tribe, the Al-Bukayir [Editor’s note: a branch of Al-Uqaidat], stood up to the SDF.

A video posted online shows fighters from the Al-Uqaidat clan showing off an SDF armored vehicle that they claimed to have destroyed in the Dammam area on August 30.

Several other tribes joined the fight against the SDF, including some of the most important in the region like the Al-Baggara and Al-Uqaidat. Members of these tribes attacked SDF positions in several locations. 

On August 31, the chief of the Al-Uqaidat tribe, Ibrahim al-Hifl gave an unprecedented speech denouncing the “barbaric practices” of the SDF and called on all the tribes in Deir Ezzor to rise up against the coalition.

This speech amounts to a declaration of war against the SDF.

On Saturday, September 2, the al-Uqaidat tribe announced that they had retaken the Al-Dhibat town, its stronghold in Deir Ezzor, from SDF fighters. “For us, it is a question of honor. There is no going back. Our demands are tribal demands,” says tribal chief Ibrahim al-Hifl in this video.

After initial reluctance, the Al-Baggara tribe has also joined the fight. These members attacked SDF positions in several areas, including in Al-Kasrah, in the west of Deir Ezzor.

The situation is really complex because most of the members of the SDF in Deir Ezzor are from local Arab tribes. Since the start of the fighting, members of these Arab tribes have been calling on their relatives in the SDF to defect.

This video shows fighters from the SDF defecting to join the ranks of local Arab tribes. It was shared on September 2, 2023 and was filmed in Al Busayrah, located in the south of Deir Ezzor.

However, other tribes have remained loyal to the SDF. One militia group known as “The Protectors of Al-Jazeera”, made up of members of the Al-Jabour tribe, said that they had joined the fight on the side of the SDF.

The situation is tipping into the unknown.

On Sunday, September 3, two American mediators met with the leaders of the SDF and local tribal leaders. The SDF said in the meeting that they didn’t have any bone to pick with the tribes, many of whom had helped them in their fight against the Islamic State group.

FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr is an expert on jihadist movements. He said that these Arab tribes are pushing back against the SDF and want to end the domination of the Kurdish forces and become the main contact points for the Americans – with all the privileges that entails.

[The chief of the Al-Uqaidat tribe] Ibrahim Hifl wants the Americans and the rest of the coalition to act as referees between them and the Kurds. 

However, at the same time, the Kurds are trying to push Ibrahim Hifl towards areas under the control of the Syrian regime. This is a strategy so that they can remain the only people speaking to the Americans. 

So there is a complex dynamic at play.